Let's put an end to School Bashing

Lawrence M. Rudner

According to the most recent Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools, a strong majority - 56 percent - of parents give their local school an A or a B. Yet only 23 percent give such good grades to the public schools in the nation as a whole. The percentages should be the same. Are parents being duped about their local schools? Or are we confused about the state of education in the nation?

The national and international evidence clearly supports parents' perception of their local schools. Almost all students in this country take one of the commercially available achievement tests - California Achievement Test, Stanford Achievement test, Metropolitan Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or the California Test of Basic Skills. Every five to eight years, new versions of these tests are developed. The publishers develop norms booklets which allow users to compare the current version results with the previous results. Since the 1980's, the average yearly change has been plus 1.0 to 2.6 percentile points. A student at the 50th percentile 10 years ago would be at the 40th or even 30th percentile today. Today's average student is doing much better than the average student 10 or 15 years ago.

In 1990, the Sandia National Laboratories conducted a major review of the evidence concerning performance of American Schools. Looking at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), they concluded that rural, disadvantaged, Hispanic and black students were making large gains. Scores for white, advantaged metropolitan, and suburban students were basically unchanged.

According to the latest NAEP assessment, the average mathematics levels at ages 9, 13 and 17 are the highest they have been in 25 years. From 1992 to 1997, the mathematics achievement in grades four and eight have gone up in almost participating state.

Our students are also doing quite well when we make international comparisons. The results from the 1996 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, show average mathematics achievement levels for our 4th and 8th graders to be above international averages. In the 1992 International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) reading assessment, our nine-year-olds placed second in the world and our fourteen-year-olds placed ninth in the world. We also have the highest graduation rate from college and our worker productivity are greatly ahead of our international rivals.

But what about the "rising tide of mediocrity?" The argument that our schools are doing poorly appear to be based on the SAT score decline and on the low percentages of students reaching the "advanced" NAEP performance level. The average SAT scores fell 90 points from a combined score of 980 in 1963 to 890 in 1980. This does look like a severe drop. However, there has been a major shift in who takes the SAT. The percent of students in the upper 40% of their graduating class taking the SAT has gone down; the percent in the lower 60% has gone up dramatically. When examined by class rank (top fifth, second fifth, etc), the average SAT scores have not changed at all since 1972. The SAT score decline reflects the fact that we are offering more higher education opportunities for the less able students. Further, the drop means that of the 138 questions on the SAT, the average student answered from six to nine fewer items correctly. In light of changing demographics, American education should be congratulated.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the best test of its kind in the world. The item development, sampling, and data analysis involve the nation's best measurement professionals and are state of the art. For the last 15 years, the NAEP governing board has set standards and has consistently told us that our students have failed to meet those standards. Is it that the students are performing miserably or that the standards are not realistic? According to many, the standards are not realistic.

In 1992, the General Accounting Office took a hard look at the NAEP standards. They noted that fewer than 5% of students in other nations demonstrated such levels of "advanced" achievement. The then head of GAO noted that "the advanced level is extreme even by world class standards."

GAO was not the first to question the NAEP standards. The NAEP governing board itself commissioned a two groups of leading evaluators to study their standards. The contractors turned in highly critical reports. Failure to meet these standards does not mean our schools are failing our students.

While high standards and reports of gloom have kept education in the forefront, the false perception that our schools are failing maybe shifting our attention away from our real deficits and from doing real good. Over one-fifth of school age children are living in poverty and those children are doing horribly. Are we doing enough to help schools deal with all the problems associated with the poor? Under the assumption of failing schools, we design ways to force schools to do a better job. We should be recognizing the successes and providing teachers with better tools. We are not spending any money on developing quality curriculum and instructional materials to be put into the public domain. Our National Library of Education is minuscule in comparison to the other National Libraries. We are not recognizing teachers for the excellent job that they do and we are not doing enough to help them teach America's children. We have been looking the wrong way.

Lawrence Rudner, Ph.D. is the Director of the Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation (http://ericae.net) at the Catholic University of America.


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